Austen’s powers

Examples of Regency dress

Twenty-seventeen is the bicentenary of Jane Austen‘s death, with the climax of the celebrations arriving on the fateful day of July 18th. Austen lovers the world over will be adding their own appreciations — as I too will be doing, discoursing on Emma, the last of her books to be published in her own lifetime.

I’ve posted a number of reviews, discussions and oblique references to the author over the years. For those who may be interested in what this newbie admirer of Austen’s powers has to say I’ve appended a list with links and also included a brief description. Feel free to indulge yourselves — or pass by!

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Metamorphosis

Kleeblatt: Eva Braun's monogram as a four leaf clover (vierblättriges Kleeblatt)
Kleeblatt: Eva Braun’s monogram as a four leaf clover (vierblättriges Kleeblatt) on a fork handle

Phyllis Edgerly Ring The Munich Girl:
a novel of the legacies that outlast war

Whole Sky Books 2015

It is the mid 1990s. Anna is stuck in a loveless and childless marriage with Lowell. In the New Hampshire house left to her by her mother she feels like a mere adjunct to his academic life, his forthcoming study on the Second World War and his publishing business which issues The Fighting Chance, a military history magazine. An adjunct, that is, until he invites her to contribute an article about Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress; it is to furnish the female angle for the forthcoming special issue of the magazine designed to coincide with the publication of Lowell’s book. And it is at this point that everything changes for her: she gets a chance to become a butterfly on the wing instead of a lowly caterpillar crawling beneath.

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Starling taught to speak

starling-bewick
Starling woodcut by Thomas Bewick (1809)

Eva Ibbotson The Morning Gift
Macmillan Children’s Books 2015 (1993)

I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak …
— Shakespeare Henry IV Part 1

Here is a publishing curiosity. The Morning Gift was originally written in the 1990s for an adult readership but then, to the author’s surprise, reissued as a teen read in 2007 (presumably slightly revised then by the author, as a copyright notice suggests). I can see how the temptation to repackage may have arisen: it’s a sort of Rags-to-Riches story, with the young heroine (she’s around twenty, I should add) playing a Cinderella role until she and her Prince Charming finally get together. But within the Boy Meets Girl trope, where the course of true love rarely runs smooth, there is so much more to enjoy. For a start, there’s a generous dose of autobiographical detail that lends both honesty and authenticity to the narrative. Continue reading “Starling taught to speak”

All in the cards

Queen of Hearts card

Anne Spillard The Cartomancer Pan Books 1989 (1987)

It’s odd how, re-reading this twenty-five years later, I find that I recall neither characters nor plot from that first reading other than that the narrator tells people’s fortunes from an ordinary deck of cards. That and the fact that there are a few obscure Arthurian references thrown in. This second rather more careful reading reveals there is a little more subtlety than at first appears from a cursory perusal, making it more satisfactory yet, curiously, curiouser.

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Consciously naïve

"Wingfield Castle, Suffolk," etching, by the British printmaker Henry Davy. 268 mm x 330 mm. Courtesy of the British Museum, London (Wikipedia Commons)
“Wingfield Castle, Suffolk,” etching by the British printmaker Henry Davy (1827), courtesy of the British Museum (Wikipedia Commons)

Dodie Smith I Capture the Castle
Illustrated by Ruth Steed from sketches by the author
The Reprint Society 1950 (1948)

This is the most perfect novel. I can perfectly understand the esteem it’s held in by those who have fallen in love with its characters, its story and its language. Told as though by the 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, I Capture the Castle catches perfectly the introspection and sensitivity of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood; extraordinary that the author, then in her early fifties, was able to portray such an individual with exquisite insight, deliberately echoing the conscious naivety that Cassandra is accused of with an older woman’s own conscious assumption of naivety.

Dodie Smith in the 1930s, photograph by Pearl Freeman (Wikipedia Commons)
Dodie Smith in the 1930s, photograph by Pearl Freeman (Wikipedia Commons)

The background to the novel’s birth is easily sketched in: successful playwright Dodie and her husband Alec Beesley moved to the US during the war because Alec was a conscientious objector, and she wrote the novel partly out of homesickness, setting it in a ruin based on the real-life Wingfield Castle in Suffolk. Wingfield is here transformed into Godsend Castle, hired by the Mortmain family, and is where father James Mortmain struggles unsuccessfully to commence the “difficult” second novel that plagues many writers. The family gradually descend into genteel poverty until the arrival of new landlords from America, when everything changes utterly.

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Guilt and misery

mansion

Jane Austen Mansfield Park Penguin Popular Classics 1994 (1814)

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.

I’ve noted before Austen’s predilection for inserting her authorial voice into her novels: in Sense and Sensibility she speaks in chapter XXXVI, and in Pride and Prejudice she appears at the beginning of the final chapter. And here she is at it again in Mansfield Park, at the start of chapter XLVIII (yes, the final chapter again) giving a succinct if ironic set of observations about the previous forty-seven chapters. She says it’s about the ‘odious’ subjects of guilt and misery; and those who have suffered from such miseries, though not totally innocent, will come to some sort of happy ending, while those who have peddled the misery and turned the knife in feelings of guilt will get their more or less just deserts. Have I committed the unpardonable sin of introducing spoilers or, this being a classic romance, is this what readers of the genre hope for and expect?

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Romancing the novel

Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan as Tarzan and Jane
Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan as Tarzan and Jane

When, in the early 70s, I spent a year or so as a library assistant (not ‘assistant librarian’, as I was firmly told) life seems in retrospect to have been a lot simpler. Information technology was in its infancy, microfiche was cutting edge for library users, and fiction was arranged on library shelves according to a simple fourfold system: Fiction (by author, in alphabetical order), Detective, Western … and Romance. (Teenage reading, what we might now call Young Adult, was still shelved under Children, hived off in its own ghetto and marked Juvenile. How fashions change.)

‘Fiction’ — that is, the works shelved by author surname from A to Z — is such a broad canvas: I’ve seen it referred to as mainstream (that is, ‘popular’), literary (niche, that is, not so popular), commercial (makes piles of money, usually in inverse proportion to its literary worth) and contemporary (probably published in the last year or so, certainly excluding classics like Dickens, Hardy and Austen). In truth these are categories with very fluid boundaries, often overlapping. (To my mind there are in reality only two types of fiction, fiction you like and fiction you don’t, but you can’t plan a public library based on personal preferences.) Where, then, does the Romantic Novel — the last genre we looked at in the creative writing class — sit? Continue reading “Romancing the novel”